I had the great honour of being invited to deliver the Occasional Address last Thursday at the graduation ceremony for the University of Western Sydney School of Education.
As someone who grew up in western Sydney and now leads a system of schools here, I have seen its transformation from an outpost to a dynamic, diverse and prosperous region. As former Labor leader Mark Latham wrote recently, Sydney’s west reflects the “Australian spirit of frontierism”. Higher school retention rates and mass university access have given the sons and daughters of the region a crack at professional jobs and entrepreneurship.”
Growing populations, prosperity and the aspirations of families has resulted in growing demand for quality education in the school and higher education sectors. Our commitment to innovation and excellence is echoed by UWS and there are some exceptional examples of cross-sector partnerships such as the Nirimba educational precinct. This is a consortium of the Western Sydney Institute of TAFE, University of Western Sydney, NSW Department of Education and Communities and Catholic Education Diocese of Parramatta. The campus provides diverse learning pathways for students whether academic or vocational.
It’s not only the landscape of western Sydney that has changed over the last three decades – the educational landscape has also changed.
When I was at university in the seventies, I trained as a history teacher but my first job was as an English teacher in a western Sydney high school. Being fresh out of university I was concerned that I wasn’t a trained English teacher but the English master basically told me everything I needed to teach was in the English syllabus. If I didn’t deviate from it, I’d get through the syllabus and so would my students. We accepted the idea of teaching as delivering the curriculum and the notion that knowledge was absolute. Students were marked on their ability to remember and recall facts without ever questioning the what and why.
My message to the graduates was that as someone who has spent more than three decades in education, I can honestly say this is an extraordinary time to be a teacher. And never before have we needed great teachers than we do today. We have learned a lot about teaching – we have moved from an understanding that intelligence is fixed (ie some students just can’t learn), teachers’ work is isolated and a one size model fits all to an understanding that all students can learn, reflective practice is critical and personalised learning is the norm. These aren’t as Kevin Donnelly recently argued progressive fads or edutainment but the result of contemporary theory and research. We know a lot more about how people learn from the learning sciences. We also know that the more we learn about learning and the more teachers learn about student learning, the more important and influential teaching becomes.
These graduates walk into learning spaces with the benefit of research, theory and technology; a focus on explicit and deliberate teaching; a commitment to ongoing professional learning and a recognition that as critical thinkers and curriculum designers they have a critical role in school improvement. Teachers become better critical thinkers and collaborators, when they are engaged in the practice of critical thinking, inquiry and collaboration on a daily basis. Without doubt, there have always been good teachers in classrooms but the difference in a connected world is an expectation of effective teachers in every classroom.
I asked fellow educators on Twitter last week what advice they would give beginning teachers. When you distil the wisdom of experienced teachers, you end up with four key characteristics of good teachers: being passionate about your work, being life-long learners, building quality relationships and listening to students.
It’s often debated whether today’s teachers are mediators, designers or co-constructors. The truth is teachers are all of these and more. They respond to individual learners and learning needs in ways that continue to challenge the mind, stretch imaginations and improve learning outcomes.
What I wanted to impart to the graduands is that teachers are our 21st century prophets. Just as biblical prophets were advocates or agents of social change, our teachers are transforming lives and ultimately shaping the future of nations.